Whether we’re leaders or not, most of us have some less-than-ideal traits and habits. Maybe we steamroll over others. Or we intimidate them with angry outbursts. Or we gossip. Or show off. Or get defensive when someone questions us. Or maybe we spend our days flying under the radar so we don’t have to leave our comfort zone.
Yes, there’s a depressing (and endless) list of human frailties we could cite. It can be uncomfortable to look for them in ourselves. But we really need to, because the days of getting away with bad behavior are over.
It’s a new day, and we must make every effort to bring our Best Selves to work. If we don’t, we won’t be contributors to the innovation, collaboration and ongoing learning that defines those companies that are able to adapt to a fast-moving world.
This is not just about “playing nice” with the other kids in the sandbox. It’s about being able to join together with them to build a stronger, better, more marketable sand castle than the one the next playground over.
If you don’t show up in a way that contributes to the success of that sand castle, you’re by default an active participant in tearing it down. The more you can be your Best Self at work, the more relevant and employable you’ll be.
(By the way, jobs that don’t require the skill set implied in this little analogy are getting increasingly scarce as computers and AI overtake them.)
What does your Best Self look like? While this list isn’t the be-all and end-all, if you exemplify these seven behaviors, you’re doing pretty well. And — it probably goes without saying — if you see yourself in the “red flags” below, you’ve got some work to do.
BEHAVIOR 1: You are able to manage your Inner World. The best thinkers, the best learners, the best collaborators and the best listeners have learned how to manage their Inner World — their ego, mind, body and emotions. This means you have a quiet ego and are open-minded and good at “not knowing.” You don’t reflexively defend, deny or deflect when someone challenges you. You are willing to change your position when you get better evidence. When talking to others, you have a quiet mind and are fully present and focused totally on listening and trying to understand what the other person is saying. You control your negative emotions and rarely fly off the handle. The goal here is to minimize your automatic reflexive way of being and come to the “table” with an inner calmness that allows you to be open-minded, curious, good at “not knowing,” non-defensive, and totally present with a quiet mind and a noncompetitive mindset.
Red Flags: A person who can’t “manage self” has to always be right. Others may describe you as defensive, arrogant, judgmental or super-opinionated. When you can’t manage yourself, you may frequently interrupt people or multi-task while listening to others. Or behave in disrespectful ways or be unable to control your emotions. Or raise your voice or glare at people.
BEHAVIOR 2: You have an “Otherness” focus. No one achieves success by themselves. In the Digital Age, success will be highly dependent upon your ability to build caring, trusting relationships at work that enable the highest levels of thinking and learning with others. Otherness is a mindset — a belief that you need the help of others to see what you don’t see because of the human tendency to seek confirmation of what you believe. It’s also a behavior — behaving in ways that show you respect the human dignity of the other person. In the Digital Age, a competitive, survival-of-the-fittest mindset will be the quickest pathway to failure. Your biggest competition in the Digital Age will be yourself, not others.
Red Flags: You rarely ask others for help. You believe you are better than most people. You view each conversation as a win-lose, zero-sum game. You will not prevent someone from doing something wrong because you want them to fail. You gossip negatively about others. You might be viewed as a know-it-all or a braggart.
BEHAVIOR 3: You emotionally connect in positive ways. The science is clear: Positive emotions enable better learning, better decision-making and more willingness to explore, create, and innovate. A positive emotional environment liberates people to sync their positivity with each other and be fully engaged without the limitations of worries, insecurities and fears. This creates the opportunity to have high-quality conversations that can result in team flow that can lead to “wow” results. When you are able to bring your positive emotions to the conversation, you understand the power of slowing down to be fully in the moment, and you express your positivity by smiling, by your tone of voice and the words you choose to use and by your calmness. You behave in respectful ways to others even if you disagree with what is being said. You express gratitude often (i.e., “thank you,” “I appreciate that,” “you are kind”).
Red Flags: You are rude to others. You use body language that says, I am not really listening to you or I am dominant. You put others down. You are closed-minded or not engaged. You are constantly interrupting, raising your voice or getting ready to attack verbally.
BEHAVIOR 4: You enable effective collaboration. Effective collaboration begins with leaders setting an example. You know how to set up meetings so that people feel psychologically “safe” to join in. You have created an environment where collaboration is not a competition — an environment where people care about each other and trust that no one will do them harm. During meetings, your people are fully present, attentive and connected to each other. Everyone gets to speak. People challenge the status quo and seek the best possible idea, regardless of the status or position of who suggested it.
Red Flags: You dominate and aggressively push your views. Meetings are not genuine open discussions — the answer is predetermined, and your real goal is consent and compliance. Some of your people don’t speak up at all. Too often, your critiques get personal.
BEHAVIOR 5: You practice reflective listening. You allow others to talk. You reframe what you think the other person is saying, to make sure you understand. You ask clarifying questions before telling, advocating or disagreeing. When you do disagree, you critique the idea, not the person.
Red Flags: You don’t make eye contact. You interrupt. You multi-task during meetings. You are a great “teller,” not a great listener. Your ego is wrapped up in showing the speaker that they are the smartest person in the room.
BEHAVIOR 6: You possess courage. In the Digital Age, everyone will have to excel at going into the unknown and figuring things out. That takes courage — the courage to try. When you have courage, you are willing to experiment, even though you know you might fail. You also understand that most learning comes from having conversations with people who have different views from you. You don’t mind having respectful difficult conversations. You volunteer for new projects, openly share your views and ask for lots of feedback.
Red Flags: You are unwilling to take risks. You appear guarded and closed-lipped. Because you fear making mistakes or looking bad, you rarely step out of your comfort zone.
BEHAVIOR 7: You enable and participate in evidence-based decision-making. You are not married to your ideas. You are open-minded. You never assume. You are always seeking data, even if it will disconfirm your theory or even force a return to the drawing board. You seem to get the statement “I am not my ideas” on a deep level.
Red Flags: You defend your ideas even when there’s no data to support them. You rarely ask for the input of others (and if it’s given, you don’t listen to it). You are invested in being “right.”
Becoming your Best Self is a never-ending journey. But there are many things you can do to accelerate your growth, from meditating to practicing gratitude to setting daily intentions. All of these efforts combined enable you to begin to cast off unwanted behaviors and replace them with the key behaviors that make Hyper-Learning possible and bring out your Best Self at work.
The good news is that you can always change your behaviors when they are not serving you or your organization. It takes a lot of intentional work. But as is always true, the first step is admitting you have a problem — and the second is realizing the upside of changing outweighs the downside of not changing.
Edward D. Hess is professor of business administration, Batten Fellow, and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business and the author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change. He spent 20 years in the business world as a senior executive and has spent the last 18 years in academia. He is the author of 13 books, over 140 articles, and 60 Darden case studies. His work has appeared in over 400 global media outlets. His recent books and research have focused on Human Excellence in the Digital Age: A New Way of Being; A New Way of Working; Humanizing the Workplace; and Hyper-Learning. For more information, please visit edhess.org.